Pawning Off The Dirty Work of Justice, Or The Machines of Ministry Won’t Save Us

This weekend my town hosted The Justice Conference, put on by tiny college that’s a branch of the church I attended my first few years in Oregon. I didn’t go to the conference so I have no right to pick it apart, nor is that my aim.

Undeniably justice is a hot topic now in Christianity. Some will say it should always be a hot topic, but it ebbs and flows. Recently it has regained steam thanks in large part to Shane Claiborne. When his first book hit the scene it seemed like every college-aged Christian (if not busy on their spiritual memoir) was trying to figure out how to end poverty and inner city ghettos.

One good thing the justice trend is doing is getting people active in their faith. It lights a fire under believer’s behinds (though it may be worth noting that the flame burns so hot it quickly burns out) and gets them interested in doing more than sitting around in coffee shops and doing Bible studies.

Having a conference on justice is great – even with the topic being hot it still gets neglected in my opinion. I will say there is only so much talking about justice you can do, as it’s much more of an action thing. Though for Christians this usually means supporting various organizations or volunteering for different programs or ministries attempting to right social wrongs.

But here’s the downfall – as I’ve written about before we can’t rely on programs or institutions to clean up the messes of our world. A long time ago I wrote about how a mega-church discovered that all the programs they offered did little to inspire spiritual growth. You can have great curriculum and conferences and fantastic sermons coupled with weekly growth programs – but what makes disciples is, well, another disciple.

Similarly, I think the church has begun to rely on ministries and programs to do the dirty work of working with people considered less than ourselves – as the programs allow us to help them from a distance. And I think if we want to see true justice, if we want to really live out all those verses on feeding the hungry – then we should consider doing it one-on-one.

Remember, the Kingdom Jesus spoke of spreads more like a wildfire – from tree to tree – rather than a bomb that gets ’em all at once.

So no, I’m not suggesting we dismantle all of non-profits and organizations and missions trying to help the world’s needy and bring a little justice, but I do think it’d do us good to stop equating social justice solely with well-designed programs. Which, naturally, complicates things and requires more than spare change or a checkbook. And even worse, I don’t have the answers to how that fleshes out exactly – as that is moreso for each person to discover how it works for them.

What do you think of the social justice trend? Do you agree we are overly reliant upon institutions? How do we take care of the poor and needy beyond cash donations?

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13 Responses to Pawning Off The Dirty Work of Justice, Or The Machines of Ministry Won’t Save Us

  1. Jeff says:

    I think, first and foremost, educating ourselves about poverty is a place to start. There are many myths and misunderstandings. Most people that have grown up with middle class values have no idea what it is like, what the hidden rules of survival are, and why they are perpetuated from generation to generation. Certainly poverty in America is different than poverty in India or other places throughout the world.
    To preach against birth control and condoms probably did more to harm women in poverty than all of the martyr-like things Mother Theresa was admired for did good. Definately not my poster child for a solution or improvement. Women need to be emancipated and break the breeding cycle which keeps them entrapped.
    Churches in America spend 65 Billion a year on their wonderful, country club like infrastructures and relatively nothing on issues of poverty or poor relief. Not sure which scriptures created that priority.

  2. i think what has happened (and I may be wrong…that has been true a time or two) is that we allowed the institutional approach because we feel less guilty about things. “Oh, well someone is taking care of them.” or “I attend a church and give some money toward a program for the widows/orphans” or something like those. And while it is laudable to have those programs and to give that money, it belies the fact that we are not really personally involved. Not with our hands. Now, it is true that God has given some the gift of mercy so they will be more involved but we simply cannot leave it up to corporations or even churches to take care of things. it takes individuals who will also commit themselves to taking care of “one of the least of these.” Unfortunately, I, myself, am a rather poor example of that.

    • Great point that some are much more prone or called toward that side of things, but that doesn’t give the rest of us license to pawn all the work off on them. It’s a big enough burden without passing it onto someone else’s shoulders.

      I think the one downfall with my post is that it’s such a huge issue that it feels daunting to do something “with your own hands” it seems so much of a better idea to leave it up to big powerful programs and institutions (though of course I don’t think it is). But don’t feel too bad as a “bad example” as it’s equally as worth wondering what can I actually do?

  3. David says:

    What do you think of the social justice trend?
    I think that trends are just that, trends – almost fads. Social justice is just another buzz word to create awareness like a marketing message. I read on one blog the new Christian is an atheist that feeds the poor.

    Do you agree we are overly reliant upon institutions?
    The institutional church is like a museum that keeps old wisdom and old ideas while trying to make them relevant. The church is meant to be a living breathing organism that follows that will of God. As consumers, we are only going where the institution goes. It replace personal relationship and responsibility for hearing and doing the will of God.

    How do we take care of the poor and needy beyond cash donations?
    Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you.” I think he meant there wasn’t going to be a permanent solution.

    Without apostolic vision and prophetic insight, churches become ingrown and rely on everything happening within their walls. It doesn’t matter if it s a small gathering, or a mega-church. Church programs try to make everyone the same, and that is counter to the idea of being a gifted body. If we have a good balance in leadership, God will reveal vision for every ministry that He wants to raise up in a local area. To me, it seems that for the most part, everyone wants to be the senior pastor, or sit in a pew. Then our senior pastors have to do everything and lead everything. How is that working?

    The most successful ministries I have seen are run by passionate believers who are not leadership. They had burdens, and leadership simply got behind them with pray, support and accountability.

    It seems like the expectation of most is that the leadership (or someone else will do it).

    • man some great points – that we have become such consumers that we are merely used to getting behind certain causes or ministries that someone else is already doing. There’s just so many ways the consumer mindset effects the mindset of the church.

      And a whole ‘nother post could be done on church programs trying to cookie cutter everyone into the same mold… man David I have credit you for half my material!

  4. Chris says:

    What do you think of the social justice trend? Do you agree we are overly reliant upon institutions? How do we take care of the poor and needy beyond cash donations?

    Social justice trend? If it’s a trend it’s been a trend for a very long time.

    When I was part of a liberal mainline church and denomination there were plenty of things there I could complain about (to myself), but one thing I have to acknowledge and give credit to them for was how they really seemed to have that part of it together. By that I mean as a church and a denomination there was always an opportunity for hands-on outreach. If you wanted to interact and help others the opportunities were available. And it wasn’t just helping from afar, although just writing a check was always an alternative as well and for many people that was as far as they would go. I was personally involved in a couple of pretty hands-on ministries and although they had some drawbacks, overall they were pretty well thought out systems for helping. Unfortunately, social justice, and not Jesus was the predominant focus there and so it was not for me.

    I admit this may not be biblical and I don’t know if Jesus would approve, but I make a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor are the kind I hear Jesus refer to in the scriptures. The widow, the orphan, the person who has just never had a break in life but is sincerely looking for that way out of their present condition. I’ve had experience with both. I once sponsored a Cuban refugee and had him come live with me for almost a year so as to help him acclimate to life in the U.S. He was very much a user and a manipulator. He wanted all the good things the U.S. had to offer but didn’t want to actually do any of the legwork or sweating in order to make some of those things happen. He didn’t like the communist system in Cuba because there you didn’t have the option of being lazy. I eventually had to throw him out.
    Another time I met a panhandler on the street and just started talking with him. He was the kind I described above. Embarrassed that he had to be there asking for money and hoping for the day that he could get up on his feet. At least this was what he told me and I felt he was telling the truth. I didn’t give him any money but I did ask him if I could pray with him. He responded in the affirmative and so we held hands right there in front of the bus station and prayed together. I asked God to lift him up and I told him that if he just kept his mind and his heart on God it would eventually happen. His name was Willy.

    One way that I might suggest helping would be to keep your spiritual antennae up, for that person in need, and then invite them into either your home or your life in some way. I know this is risky and I don’t recommend doing this carelessly. But the impact you might have in a personal encounter like this may go well beyond what you could do in the life of that person than you could ever do as part of some social justice organization or even ministry.

    • David says:

      Great comments Chris. How can we ever do this without hearing from God? Even something as ‘natural’ as feeding the poor needs just as much Jesus as healing the sick supernaturally.

      There is a guy at church that comes to my class. I like him. So I started calling him once in a while. He has a tale of woe. I mentioned it to the pastor. I found out he has a 12 year history of pretty much doing nothing. I also found out the they have poured thousands of dollars into this guy, and he continues to do nothing.

      We have another couple that comes to the class. She moved here for a big-deal contracting job. It ended, and he got laid off at his full-time job not long after. They sold a car to keep going. His company hired him back part-time (no benefits, and she can’t collect unemployment). He is out there looking for work, sending out resumes and so is she. We did an offering in the class of 24 and they received a huge amount.

      Big difference.

    • @Chris
      I definitely think your ending paragraph is more in line with the “ideal” way to respond to the social justice issue, if such an ideal even exists. One downfall is that person can quickly become a project, a client of your services, which is a different issue that almost became part 2 of this post (and eventually may).

      I’m not sure I agree with the distinction you made – but I DEFINITELY understand when someone is manipulating and using, because that sort of behavior shouldn’t be supported and I do think warrants a “cutting off” of sorts.

  5. Larry Hughes says:

    Dave and Chris brought up some valid points. It is risky to get involved in helping the so called needy on a personal level. You do have manipulators and users that will expunge off any system for ever ( Ones that stay on welfare forever and pass it down from one generation to the next or expect free hand outs forever.)

    It is a nice jesture for churches to have programs that feed or help others in other countries. However, are the churches aware that billions of our tax payer monies go to these countries by our government yearly too but none never seem to filter down to the ones actually needing aid? Most of it stays in the pockets of the ruling party in that country. Latest case in point, Egypt.

    Considering our own current economic woes, there are many here in the USA that need aid too. Sending jobs over seas is not the answer. Thanks to NAFTA and the Free Trade Agreement enacted in the early 90s, we have lost millions of jobs for people in the USA and continues to happen today.

    I am all for giving aid to those in need but in our own country first and foremost. Of course we have to weed out the manipulators and users that want a life time free ride at our expense.
    OK. Here comes the God inspired story:

    I run two mobile home parks where the mix is young starting out families to retirees looking for an easier lifestyle and in between. One of the mobile homes in one park was donated to a church when the tenant passed away. This church teamed up with another church to rehab the home and offer it to a needy family. They coordinated the work to be done on the home and members donated their time and church money to fix up the home.

    They then sought out a possible needy family that fell on hard times and was laid off their job which led to them loosing their home. They had an interview process which eliminated the manipulators and users thus comming up with a good candidate for the home. The two churches paid for the lot rent and utilities untill the selected candidate was able to land a new job as well as groomed the tenant for interview processes.

    That tenant is now working and is a good addition to the community. The two churches have decided to attempt another home rehab in one of my two communities as the funds and home becomes available. These are not mega churches but modest sized churches. Their ministry mission is to help people in their own city that are not members of their churches.

    • Another downfall on relying on institutions is corruption, like you said. How many stories have to come out of foreign aide merely lining pockets of the wealthy before people just lose faith in non-profits and relief aid?

      and beautiful story – here is where the intensive social-work like process is beneficial and even necessary.

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